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Lawsuit brings better conditions for immigration detainees

At a short-term processing facility in L.A., immigrants were held in cramped rooms with no access to drinking water, sanitary napkins or toothbrushes for weeks. U.S. officials have agreed to reforms.

September 17, 2009|Robert J. Lopez

Immigrants detained in a short-term processing center in the basement of a Los Angeles federal building can no longer be held for weeks without access to drinking water, clean clothes or items such as sanitary napkins, according to a settlement announced Wednesday.

The settlement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities resulted from a lawsuit filed in April by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the National Immigration Law Center and the Paul Hastings law firm.

The suit described how immigrants were held in crowded, unsanitary conditions in the basement area known as B-18 in the Federal Building at 300 N. Los Angeles St. downtown. Women were often denied access to sanitary napkins, detainees were not allowed to brush their teeth for up two weeks and toilets would regularly overflow, according to the lawsuit.

"Nobody should have to live like that," said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrant rights for the Southern California chapter of ACLU and the case's lead attorney.

Lawyers for the detainees said immigration officials addressed the problems after the lawsuit was filed.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said the settlement underscores the agency's commitment to detainees' well-being.

"The cornerstone of these reforms is prioritizing health, safety and uniformity among all of the agency's facilities while enhancing operational efficiency and fiscal responsibility," the agency said.

Under the settlement, detainees cannot be held for more than 12 consecutive hours, except under limited exceptions such as waiting for court appearances.

Lawyers for the detainees will be allowed to visit the facility and be provided daily lists of people being held there, said Linton Joaquin, general counsel for the National Immigration Law Center.

The conditions in B-18 were not unique, according to Arulanantham, who said that he hopes the settlement will become a model for federal detention facilities nationwide.

"This is an important step," he said, "but it's one small step."

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robert.lopez@latimes.com

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